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More bite than Twilight

Hardeep Chohan
Bram Stoker's Dracula captured the imagination - and fears - of Victorian England. Society's moved on but our love for vampires remains. Why?
I don’t quite know how it happened, but we’ve become a nation of vampire lovers. Why restrict the bloodlust to this merry isle: the whole world has gone vampire mad. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga is just the bloodied cherry on the cake. Back in the 1990s, Anne Rice was hailed the queen of ‘supernatural romance’ with the Vampire Chronicles, immortalised in true Hollywood style through Interview with the Vampire. Fast-forward three years and the vampire comes to high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A slew of vampire babies followed: True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and the recent – albeit short-lived – Dracula TV series featuring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the toothy lead.

So why this mania for vampires?

Let’s go back to the granddaddy of the genre: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Before this much ink had been spilt on gothic fancies: The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Giaour, The Vampyre and Carmilla are some key precursors. But Stoker’s work became the definitive vampire bible.

The novel is laden with issues of the time. The degeneration of society, the breaking down of sexual and gender relations, and developments in science and technology. Even a cursory reading of the novel, with its several voices, time schemes and locations – let alone the plot itself – reveals it to be what literary biographer Geoffrey Wall calls “persistently, an anxious text”.

It’s in our blood

Anthropology, evolutionary theory, social behaviour – these were hot topics. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had all but eroded the link between man and beast; surely if we had evolved from animals, there was a chance we could devolve, too? Degenerates were defined by their appearance: the aquiline nose, massive eyebrows and pointed ears of Count Dracula match contemporary criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s description of the born criminal (Uomo Delinquente).

Running alongside this was the additional threat of changing gender roles. Women’s efforts in pushing for social and sexual autonomy led to the emergence of the ‘New Woman’, a term coined by Sarah Grand in The Heavenly Twins. When Jonathan Harker describes being attacked by three female vampires, he becomes utterly passive: “I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation”. The women become predators and hence forfeit their gender – “I am alone in the castle with those awful women. Faugh! Mina is a woman, and there is nought in common”. When Lucy is bitten, she becomes sexually aggressive. She’s then staked back to ‘normality’.

Dracula embodies a melting pot of anxieties and fears. He is both a physical tormentor and the spectre that hangs over middle class Victorian England. Harker looks into the mirror when standing next to the Count and notes: ‘the whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself’. The greatest fear is that the monster lurks somewhere inside all of us.

Always a sucker

Fast forward two centuries and we had Dracula, the TV series. But the tagline for the drama, ‘Love is his obsession. Revenge is in his blood’, was quite a different proposition from that of the cold blooded sociopath Stoker imagined. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Alexander Grayson, a vampire whose motive was to avenge the murder of his lover from previous centuries. Machinations and blood sucking were transformed into a twenty-first century hybrid narrative: Robin Hood with fantasy players tagged in.

So what does it mean for the modern day vampire myth? As we’ve seen with The Twilight Saga, the story becomes a lot more interesting when the vampire stops being an externalised bogeyman and becomes ‘one of us’ – or at least attempts to. As Stephenie Meyer said in an interview with Time magazine, “I really think that’s the underlying metaphor of my vampires. It doesn’t matter where you’re stuck in life or what you think you have to do; you can always choose something else.”

Image Credit: CC Sandra

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